Why I Hate Debating Calvinists
I don’t debate Calvinists very often. There’s a good reason for that. Actually, there are a few of reasons for that. Below are 3 reasons why I hate debating with Calvinists and why at the end of every discussion, I feel like ripping my hair right out of my scalp. I’ll list the 3 from #3 to the top number 1 cause I try to avoid debates with Calvinists. Before I go on, I want to make clear that I do love my Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ, and I don’t believe this should be a divisive issue. And in fact, some of my favorite apologists are Calvinists like Greg Koukl.
3: Making friends angry or giving them the impression that I dislike them because I think their theology is whack.
This reason in particular is making me have second thoughts about writing this very blog post. Sometimes the criticism of Calvinism by Arminians and Molinists come off as being divisive or polarizing. I've even been called "Anti-Calvinist" by Neil Shenvi for my posts criticizing Calvinism. I've had about 2 or 3 people unfriend me on Facebook because of it. As already stated above, I love my Calvinist brothers and sisters in Christ and I don't wish to divide the body of Christ. For that reason, I get nervous every time I post a blog post critiquing something of Calvinism. I actually haven't made that many posts about this issue (only 3 or 4). I certainly hope that if any Calvinist I know reads this, he won't get the notion that I dislike him, or consider him a heretic, or anything like that. I simply find Calvinism to be philosophically bankrupt, logically inconsistent and un-scriptural.
Reason No. 2: Defining the doctrine of the T.U.L.I.P and getting the Calvinist to agree with your definition.
This happens all the time. For example, Calvinists define irresistible grace and then when Arminian defines it in exactly the same terms, they get accused of committing the straw man fallacy. Even when non-Calvinists have quoted or paraphrased what Calvinists themselves have said in describing their own doctrine! For example, at the "Building Bridges" conference, Nathan Finn chastised Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Roy Fish for the following description of irresistible grace, which Finn described as a "stereotype" and a "misunderstanding" of the doctrine:
“The "I" in the TULIP is what is called irresistible grace. That means that people who are going to be saved have no other option. They really don't have a choice. The grace of God cannot be resisted. They cannot resist this special saving grace.”
A line-by-line study of Fish's description reveals that Calvinists define irresistible grace in virtually the same words:
Roy Fish: (Irresistible grace) "means that people who are going to be saved have no other option. They really don't have a choice."
The Synod of Dort: "And this is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without WITHOUT OUR help But this certainly does not happen only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a way of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in man's power whether or not to be reborn or converted. Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work. ... As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. .. ,"
James White: "The doctrine of 'irresistible grace' ... is simply the belief that when God chooses to move in the lives of His elect and bring thorny from spiritual death to spiritual life, no power in heaven or on Earth can stop Him from so doing. ... It is simply the confession that when God chooses to raise His people to spiritual life, He does so without the fulfillment of any conditions on the part of the sinner. Just as Christ had the power and authority to raise Lazarus to life without obtaining his 'permission' to do so, He is able to raise His elect to spirititual life with just as certain a result."
David Steele, Curtis Thomas, and S. Lance Quinn: "The Holy Spirit extends a special inward call that inevitably brings them to salvation . . . [T]he internal call (which is made only to the elect) cannot be rejected. It always results in conversion. By means of this special call Spirit irresistibly draws sinners to Christ. He is not limited in His w< of applying salvation by man's will, nor is He dependent upon man cooperation for success. ... God's grace, therefore, is invincible; it n fails to result in the salvation of those to whom it is extended.
Roy Fish: "The grace of God cannot be resisted. 1 hey cannot resist Special saving grace."
The Synod of Dort: The Synod rejects that . . . "God in regenerating man does not bring to bear that power of his omnipotence whereby may powerfully and unfailingly bend man's will to faith and conversion . . ." (The Synod rejects that someone) "can, and in actual fact often c so resist God and the Spirit in their intent and will to regenerate him.
John Piper: “Irresistible grace "means the Holy Spirit can overcome all resistance and make his influence irresistible... . The doctrine of irrestible grace means that God is sovereign and can overcome all resistance he wills.... When God undertakes to fulfill his sovereign purpose, no o can successfully resist him. . . . When a person hears a preacher call fo repentance he can resist that call. But if God gives him repentance 1 cannot resist because the gift is the removal of resistance.... So if God gives repentance it is the same as taking away the resistance. This is we call this work of God 'irresistible grace.' "
Was Fish reflecting the statements of some Calvinists in his definition? Distinguishing Fish's from Finn's is so difficult that one must wonder what exactly is it in Fish's description that Finn objects to so strenuously. He has echoed Calvinist descriptions of irresistible grace, and yet Finn takes him to task for doing so. No matter how modern-day Calvinists attempt to gloss over the hardness of irresistible grace and project it in a softer, gentler light, the doctrine remains what it is. When pressed with their own words, I find often times that Calvinists seem to play word games with their words in order to make their beliefs more palatable.
A Calvinist in an Apologetics Facebook group I was in a couple of years ago called my description of Limited Atonement a strawman when I characterized it as “Jesus died only for some and to Hell with all the rest (pun intended)” How exactly is this a straw man? From my understanding Unlimited Atonement (what I believe in) is the doctrine that Jesus died for every single human being who ever was and ever will be. By contrast, what exactly is Limited Atonement? He also said that I was wrong when I said that on this view, it means that God doesn’t love everyone. Well, I find it hard to believe that Jesus could die for only some and still love ALL. If God really loved everyone, wouldn’t He die for everyone in order to save them from eternal damnation? If not, then in what meaningful sense of the word can it be said that He really loves everyone? One Calvinist theologian (whose name I can’t recall at the moment) was intellectually honest enough to admit that God’s non-omnibenevolence logically follows from the doctrine of a limited atonement. An Arminian friend of mine showed in syllogistic form why disbelieving in God's omnibenevolence is logically invalid given what scripture says.
Think about it. We commonly think that if you love someone, you have a desire for their wellbeing. Parents force their children to eat their fruits and vegetables when they would rather eat candy. They do this because they know that their wellbeing depends on what kind of foods they eat. In order to be healthy and full of energy, the children have to eat their fruits and vegetables. If they ate candy every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, soon they’d be obese and lethargic. Parents desire that their children go off to college so they can get well paying jobs and live a happy successful life.
Now, if a parent saw that his child was injured and bleeding out on the street, and he just walked away and left him for dead. In what meaningful sense of the word could we honestly say that that parent loved that child? If he really loved him, he would have taken him to the hospital immediately for treatment? If a parent knew his child was going to be kidnapped by evil men and tortured for the rest of his life, and he had the power to stop it but didn’t, in what meaningful sense of the word could we say that the parent really loved that child? On Calvinism, God can freely determine (a view known as compatiblism) all people everywhere to come to repentance, and ONLY do good to one another and NOT end up in Hell. But He doesn't. So, in what way does He love them?
Of course, if the analogy were to be completely accurate, we would say that in the case of the child injured in the street or the one kidnapped and tortured, that the parent preordained these events before the child was ever born! This is what we come to when we consider the Calvinist’s understanding of predestination. Now, many of them will SAY that they don’t affirm double predestination (i.e God destines some to eternal paradise and God destines some to eternal torture before the universe was ever created) but I find the view hard to avoid if you affirm the Calvinist’s understanding of predestination? How can God decree some to Heaven and NOT decree the damnation of those He hasn’t chosen to save? They’re pretty much saying “I don’t believe God has decreed people to burn in Hell forever, He just didn’t decree them to be in Heaven forever?” It seems like a hair splitting distinction to me. Maybe I’m wrong.
Oh! I got off on a tangent! I’m sorry. Anyway, in summary, the number 2 reason I hate debating Calvinists is because I just can’t seem to nail down what they mean by their terminology. To say “Irresistible Grace…” or “Predestination is….etc. etc. etc.” and have them nod in agreement and say “yeah, that’s what I believe” is difficult if not impossible at least in my experience. I think I have a good idea on what they believe just by reading Calvinist statements, but when I (and many other Arminians and Molinists have this trouble) use almost the same exact words, we get accused of committing the straw man fallacy. What gives!?
One of the most frustrating things regarding the debate is trying to pin down the definitions of what Calvinists mean by things like irresistible grace, limited atonement, etc. I can debate a Calvinist for hours on what we mean by our terminology and never even get to the issue of whether or not either of our theologies are true! At least when I debate Young Earth Creationists and Atheists, I don’t have them denying that my descriptions of their beliefs are false. Not once. In fact, with the Atheists, it’s rather easy. They believe there is no God. They believe that nature is all there is and that everything has a natural cause and there are no supernatural causes. Easy peasy. No Atheist I’ve ever talked to has disputed that. But with Calvinists, like I said, getting them to agree with your descriptions of their theology is like nailing jelly to a wall. As soon as the nail is in place, the jelly (i.e definition of one of the 5 points) moves and if you have to try to pin it down again!
Reason No. 1: Calvinists dismiss arguments against the moral nature of the Calvinist God with a mere hand wave.
I had trouble deciding whether the reason above or this one deserved be rated as number 1 as the biggest of the biggest reasons why I dislike debating Calvinists. When pressed on issues such an infant damnation (Note: I know that many Calvinists don’t believe in this, but some do and did in the past) or when it is pointed out that it seems unfair that God should arbitrarily pick some people for Heaven and arbitrarily pick others for damnation, they quote Paul in Romans 9 saying “Who are you O man to question God?” or they’ll say “Who are you to judge God like that?” or “You’re not in a position to question God?” Well, for one thing, I’m not judging God, I’m pulling their warped view of God on trial. I don’t believe God works the way they say he works. Number 2: When answers like this come around, it is seen as a hand wave, a dismissal. Like you don’t really want to try to answer the objection or that you don’t consider it worth your time. I can only imagine what an atheist would say to me, if, when he asked me why God allows good people to suffer and I responded by saying “You can’t question God! Who are you O man to question God? How arrogant of you!” and walked away. That atheist would still be bothered by the existence of evil and suffering and it would still not make sense to Him how an all loving, all powerful God could allow suffering to occur. By the way, if the problem of evil and suffering bothers you like it bothers a lot of people, I wrote a whole blog on it giving legitimate answers that I think make sense and which makes believing in God’s omnipotence and omnibenevolence in light of the suffering in the world reasonable. Click here to see it.
When Atheists or even doubting Christians raise objections which seem to cast doubt on God’s perfectly good and moral character, I don’t just point out that without God, there would be no moral standard by which to judge good and evil (which is a perfectly legitimate approach, but NOT by itself). I also give arguments and explanations which DEMONSTRATE how God would be justified in doing said action which is mentioned in The Bible. I don’t tell them that they have no right to question God. I show them how it makes sense to believe God is 100% good, loving and just in light of the report of what He’s done (for example, the order of the destruction of the Canaanites).I once told an atheist exactly what I said in the blog post I linked to above. He said to me "You know, I see how that makes sense. I can see how these events are consistent with both God's love and justice." I'm glad he didn't run into one of the "Who are you O man" Christians and instead ran into a Christian who could actually show how God's actions are consistent with love and justice.
I recently debated a Calvinist in a theology discussion group (on Facebook) recently. This Calvinist believed that God would be wholly justified in He were to condemn new born infants to Hell before they reached the age where they knew the difference between right from wrong (also known as the age of accountability). I honestly wasn't trying to stump him. I was legitimately trying to get him to show me how God could possibly be justified given what he said He did (the damnation of infants). In one comment, he said that He did not believe that God ACTUALLY condemned infants to Hell, just that He would be justified in doing so. Although he defended the notion to adamantly that I have to kind of wonder if secretly did believe God actually condemned infants to eternal torment. Anyway, I pressed him and pressed him in each of my responses, but I could not get him to demonstrate for me how God could possibly be just if He did indeed condemn infants to Hell. Since infants don't know right from wrong and since they're not old enough to realize their sinners in need of a Savior, how could it possibly be just to condemn them just because Adam and Eve sinned thousands of years ago? To this, I still don't have a satisfying answer. I don't think I ever will. The reason for that is probably because there isn't a satisfying answer. It's irrational to believe it's just for God to burn babies. Period. He kept pulling the same "We're not in the position to judge God" card.
Here’s the point I often bring up. If something God does offends our moral intuitions, it either can be justified (like in the case of the Old Testament judgments I pointed out in a recent blog post) or that particular view of God is false (i.e reasoning that X is evil, therefore God wouldn’t do X) and perhaps we need to re-examine our scriptural interpretation of God.
Can God do anything He wants to? Yes He can. He’s sovereign. But I agree with Jerry Walls who said that he believes there are some things God can’t want. God can’t want people to burn in Hell because He is, by His very nature, love (see 1 John 4:16) and love does not “take good pleasure” in the destruction of others (Proverbs 24:17) nor does love desire it and actually wishes to prevent it as I’ve argued above, at least on the eternal level. God can't want people to sin because then it doesn't make any sense for God to punish people for doing exactly what he predetermined them to do.
Well, there you have it. The top 3 reasons why I dislike debating Calvinists.